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Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • Shingles, also known as varicella-zoster or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.
  • The virus remains in the body after chickenpox and can reactivate, leading to shingles. Symptoms include a red, blistered rash, fever, fatigue, headache, and light sensitivity.
  • While shingles itself is not contagious, the varicella-zoster virus can be spread to those who haven't had chickenpox or the varicella vaccine.
  • Prevention methods include the shingles vaccine, recommended for those over 50, and the chickenpox vaccine. Covering the rash can also help prevent virus spread.
  • Treatment options for shingles include antiviral drugs, topical treatments, pain relievers, and home remedies.

Possible Symptoms for Shingles

Shingles often begins with pain or tingling in one area of the body. Most people with shingles also develop a red, blistered rash on the torso or face. The rash usually clears up within two to six weeks, but pain can persist for several months.[1]

Other symptoms near the site of the rash might include:

  • Pain
  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • Sensitivity to touch

Many people with shingles also experience:

Top Cause of Shingles

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the virus responsible for chickenpox. A person infected with chickenpox carries the virus in their system for the rest of their life. The virus is usually dormant, or inactive, and doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, the virus sometimes reactivates years later and causes shingles.[1]

Any person who has had chickenpox may someday develop shingles. While shingles itself is not contagious, a person with shingles can spread the varicella-zoster virus.[2] A person who has never had chickenpox or received the varicella vaccine can develop chickenpox after exposure to someone with shingles.

The fluid inside shingles blisters contains the varicella-zoster virus. Direct contact with this fluid can spread the virus. A person with shingles is contagious from the time their rash appears until all the blisters in their rash have crusted over. Shingles is not as contagious as chickenpox, but a person with shingles should avoid contact with pregnant women, infants, people who are immunocompromised, and anyone who has never had chickenpox.[2]

3 Ways to Prevent Shingles

1. Get the Shingles Vaccine

If you’ve already had chickenpox, you can reduce your risk of developing shingles by getting the shingles vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control recommend that anyone over the age of 50 get this vaccine.[3]

If you are not sure whether you’ve had chickenpox, your doctor or pharmacist might recommend the vaccine anyway. Recent studies have shown that most Americans over the age of 40 have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember it. The shingles vaccine can reduce your risk of developing shingles by up to 67 percent. If you’ve already had shingles, the vaccine can help prevent future shingles outbreaks.[4]

2. Get the Chickenpox Vaccine

If you’ve never had chickenpox, you are not at risk of developing shingles. However, you can still contract chickenpox in the future if you haven’t been vaccinated. The varicella vaccine is given in two doses and is effective at preventing chickenpox in 94 percent of cases.[5]

Children typically receive the vaccine when they are 12 to 15 months old. Children then receive a booster shot between the ages of 4 and 6. Adults can also receive the varicella vaccine. If you received the vaccine as a child, you might need a booster shot.[5] Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information about the varicella vaccine.

3. Cover Your Rash

If you have shingles, cover your rash with a sterile dressing. This helps prevent infection from scratching your rash. It also helps prevent the spread of the varicella-zoster virus.[3] Keep your rash covered, avoid touching the rash, and wash your hands frequently. Be sure to launder any clothing or other personal items that come in contact with your rash.

5 Possible Shingles Treatment Options

1. Antiviral Drugs

While no medication can cure shingles, antiviral drugs can help you recover from shingles more quickly. In rare cases, shingles can sometimes cause health complications such as vision loss or neurological issues.[1] Antiviral medications such as Acyclovir or Valacyclovir can reduce your risk of developing these complications, but they require a prescription.[6]

2. Topical Treatments

Shingles rashes can be very painful and itchy. Your doctor might recommend the use of topical creams, gels, sprays, or patches to help relieve your discomfort.[6] Some of these treatments are available over the counter, but others require a prescription. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you decide which topical treatments are right for you.

3. Pain Relievers

If you experience significant pain, your doctor might recommend the use of pain relievers. Pain relief medications include those taken by mouth or injected into the affected area.[6] Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen can help with mild pain, but severe pain might require injections at a doctor’s office.

4. Home Remedies

Home remedies, including cold compresses, oatmeal baths, and calamine lotion, can help relieve pain and itching. Regular showers or baths can provide relief from shingles symptoms and also help reduce your risk of spreading the virus.[7] Ask your doctor or pharmacist for suggestions on at-home treatments.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Shingles

  • When did you first notice your symptoms?
  • Do you have a rash?
  • Is your rash painful?
  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Have you had chickenpox before?
  • Have you had the shingles vaccine?
  • Have you been exposed to any substance that might cause a rash, like poison ivy?

Shingles May Also Be Known as

  • Varicella-zoster
  • Herpes zoster

Frequently asked questions

  • What causes shingles?

    Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus can reactivate in your body and cause shingles if you've had chickenpox before.
  • Is shingles contagious?

    No, shingles itself is not contagious, but the varicella-zoster virus that causes it can be spread to people who haven't had chickenpox or the varicella vaccine.
  • How can I prevent shingles?

    The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated. There are vaccines for both shingles and chickenpox. It's also recommended to cover your rash if you have shingles to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • What are the symptoms of shingles?

    Symptoms of shingles include a red, blistered rash, usually on the torso or face, along with fever, fatigue, headache, and sensitivity to light.
  • How is shingles treated?

    Shingles can be treated with antiviral drugs, topical treatments, and pain relievers. There are also home remedies that can help alleviate symptoms.
  • Who should get the shingles vaccine?

    The shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone over the age of 50.
  • Can I get shingles if I've never had chickenpox?

    No, you can only get shingles if you've had chickenpox in the past, as they're caused by the same virus.
  • What other names does shingles go by?

    Shingles is also known as varicella-zoster or herpes zoster.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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